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  • Authenticity as Performance and the Conventions of Companionship in Fanny Kemble's Poems
  • Martin Brooks (bio)

Mrs. Kemble's case would have been an exquisite one for a psychologist interested in studying the constitution of sincerity

Henry James, "Frances Anne Kemble"

This essay discusses how the actress and poet Frances Anne Kemble (1809–1893), best known as Fanny Kemble, worked to achieve authenticity in her collection of lyrics, Poems (1844). As it shows, Poems draws on Kemble's distinctive ideas about how a person's speech can be authentic, that is, can represent "the great deeps of life" within them.1 In letters and journals dating from her career as a famous Shakespearean actress, Kemble had developed a view that authenticity comes from how rather than why people speak. She disputed the expectation that speech only represents a person's subjectivity, their "self," when it is idiosyncratic or original. Instead, she held that people can use preexisting literary, stage, and social conventions to represent themselves. Kemble generated much of this view from arguing that actors represent themselves by their choice and use of acting techniques for playing their characters. At the same time, though, she had found the same view in poetry, arguing that poets reveal themselves in the ways that they manipulate stock ideas. As this essay establishes, Kemble's view of authenticity runs throughout Poems. Not only does Poems demonstrate how her work as actress and her work as poet were fundamentally linked by her ideas about performance, but it also illustrates how her poetry frames received ideas as able to authenticate speech.

Social conventions provide Poems most of its shape. Kemble published Poems during the collapse of her marriage to the American slaveholder Pierce Butler. Its poems draw on the nineteenth-century idea of companionship to depict the poet responding to lost love and rearranging her life.2 As Kemble [End Page 501] had written extolling the relationship to Butler, companionship was a kind of friendship which emphasized closeness, honesty, equality between two friends. Usually they were both women, and their companionship would occur in private or domestic settings. Poems draws on these conventions to establish that the poet's speech represents her core self, and to create a reference point which authenticates that her literary echoes and allusions represent it too. By reading Poems with a focus on companionship, this essay shows how the construction of the poet's voice exemplifies Kemble's theory that she could convey her selfhood by using received ideas.

Authenticity in the Nineteenth-Century Theater

Authenticity underwent major changes in the nineteenth century. People stopped using it to trace their words back to wider social structures and started to weigh if what they said could be traced back to their individual self. As Kerry Sinanan and Tim Milnes write, "the idea of the authentic harden[ed] around a core, internal self, and the social [was] increasingly experienced as 'other.' "3 Yet, a twentieth-century critical focus on the "core, internal self" has largely displaced critical accounts of the transitional views that people held during that change. In particular, it has minimized the attention paid to nineteenth-century views that popular techniques and tropes in a person's writing or speech can be an authentic representation of that self. This view of authenticity has received little comment. Moreover, several critics have suggested that it is fakery. Lionel Trilling, for instance, rejects as an "impersonation" "the personality whose whole being is attuned to catch the signals sent out by the consensus of his fellows and by the institutional agencies of his culture."4 Geoffrey Hartman, meanwhile, describes "'Hollywood' and its celebrity culture" as an unreal "parallel universe" where "[m]orality, as [Emmanuel] Levinas points out, becomes role playing."5 This critical approach rejects the possibility that a culture might treat people's use of standard ideas as representative of their own selfhood. Certainly, some nineteenth-century writing offered just this type of rejection.6 However, that rejection was not ubiquitous. Kemble, especially, questioned it. Her inquiry led to her bridging between her careers on the stage and in poetry.

Nineteenth-century theater critics often focused on how well Kemble used standard acting techniques...


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